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Disability and Social Inequality

Disability and Social Inequality

abby rose's picture

In her most recent post, Sunshine equated ableism with racism and articulated that "[c]learly, we should not try to make everyone look more white. Rather, we should try to eradicate racism." I thought this comparison really helped clarify the simple yet major message from Exile and Pride that it is not disabled indivduals that need to be changed, but the society we live in that compels us to see those with disabilities as flawed and in need of fixing. 

When we were in class this past Wednesday, Kristin described the world "disability" as a socially constructed identity. I didn't fully understand what that meant at the time since I have always been taught that an individual was disabled, implying that the drawbacks one faces is due to their impairment(s). This misunderstanding on my part is hard proof that ableism is woven into the fabric of our thinking (or at least my thinking). Rather than placing the responsibility on the individual, the "problem" clearly lies in the way our society perceives and treats those with disabilities. Although the evidence has been in front of me for my entire life, I rarely process how ableist our society is and how those with disabilities are too often treated as second-class citizens by able-bodied individuals. The following passage gave me a visual on how our society might look if we treated disabled people with equality, and opened my eyes to a few of the realities of disabled life:

"In the world as it should be, maybe disabled people would be differently abled: a world where Braille and audio-recorded editions of books and magazines were a matter of course, and hearing people signed ASL; a world where schools were fully integrated, health care, free and unrationed; a world where universal access meant exactly that; a world where disabled people were not locked up at home or in nursing homes, relegated to sheltered employment and paid sweatshop wages" (84). 

The structural inequalities listed by Clare in the previous paragraph are only the tip of the iceberg. The truth of the situation is that while a disabled person does indeed face a unique set of challenges in their life, a great majority of their obstacles come from living in a world that fails to raise everybody up to the same starting point. Exile and Pride brings up the notion that equality does not mean treating every person the same, but ensuring that every person has the same opportunities to succeed. Clare, for example, was initially placed in "special ed" classes in school becuase the IQ tests were specifically designed for those who could write and speak with ease. Had these tests taken different disabilities into consideration at all, they would have been completely redesigned and Clare would not have had such an uphill battle to prove his competence. Contrarily, Clare explained how neither his family nor his teachers knew how to handle his CP in more social contexts and disregarded his disability and his disability-related needs, i.e. not asking if he needed help when he struggled with "simple" tasks, not comforting him when his peers threw slurs, etc. Clare was treated by those around him as if he didn't have CP, but that was not necessarily treating him with equality. 

 Why is it that in a society that is so weighted against those with disabilities, Clare's family and teachers jumped to the conclusion that he should receive the same treatment as other students? Perhaps it is because society struggles to appropriately acknowledge difference, so it is easier for individuals to ignore differences as well? Is equal treatment here confused with equal opportunity, as it almost always is? Going back to disability as a socially constructed identity, how can we shift society's understanding of disability?

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